Review: ‘Bare’ brings seduction, secrets and the search for identity to stage

Photograph courtesy of SIU Theater
Matt, played by Josh Miller, and Peter, played by Michael Radford, stare each other down during a scene in "bare: a pop opera" in the Charles H. Moe Theater.

By Brian Munoz, Editor in Chief

CARBONDALE – ‘bare: a pop opera,’ closed out its Southern Illinois University debut Saturday night bringing Jon Hartmere’s story of love, seduction and identity to life at the Christian H. Moe Theater.

Featuring the music of Damon Intrabartolo, the student-run FIERCE Musical Theater group did not fail to deliver on this coming-of-age tale filled with an intricate plot of twists and turns against the backdrop of a private Catholic boarding school.

The story follows a secret taboo relationship between main characters Jason (Jake Ellsworth) with Peter (Michael Radford). Jason is a popular athlete who is adored by all of the girls and Peter is a student whose parents struggle to come to terms about his sexuality. Peter drives the storyline as he attempts to accept his own sexuality and have Jason be more public about their relationship.

When the two are cast in the school’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” – Jason is a cast as Romeo and Peter is cast as Mercutio. Ivy (Madison Pruitt), another student at the school, is head-over-heels for Jason and is cast as Juliet as an awkward love-triangle develops throughout.

A another strand to the intricate love web is added when Matt (Josh Miller), resident stuffed-shirt, is found to be in love with Ivy. The students are advised by Sister Chantelle (Kennedy Hayes) and the priest (Christian Powell) as they navigate the complexities of life in the teen-angst filled rock opera.

The university’s intimate black box space was transformed to a multi-dimensional alley set with multiple platforms, boxes and a simple table to change scenes. The simple, but effective, set paired with an incredible lighting design truly enhanced the production quality of the entire performance.

Six cathedral-style windows sat suspended above the audience as rays of light broke through a dense fog which filled the theater. A multi-colored pane of stained glass, along with crucifix, was projected on the upstage wall, enveloped by dozens of candles creating a reverent ambiance as the audience files into the venue.

Asia Ward, artistic director, did an excellent job of setting the stage production within the walls of a church. The setting easily takes us from the boarding school’s auditorium, to dorms to the church sanctuary throughout time.

The set, along with with thematic lighting to portray emotion and separating characters in various scenes made the most out of the space given. The intimate nature of theater had audience members in the midst of the production and gave them a fully captivating experience.

Ellsworth goes above and beyond in his portrayal of Jason – adding his own take on a popular athlete caught in between two worlds and looking for his true self. His interactions with Radford’s character present an attention-capturing juxtaposition in the presentation of the roles.

Radford was a natural selection for the role of Peter – his contrast in personality to Ellsworth made for a Felix and Oscar-esque interactions and created a memorable chemistry between the two.

A spotlight in the performance was Peter’s back and forth with his mother, Claire (Grace Nowak), in the piece “See Me.” Nowak was a spectacular fit for the role of Claire – she presented the character beautifully and her heart-breaking and powerful rendition of “Warning” left the audience with tears in their eyes.

Acceptance seemed to be a common thematic element throughout the show. Nadia (Mainyia Xiong), Jason’s sister, sings an emotional aria about her search for acceptance from her family and peers in regards to her weight. While she struggles with her physical appearance, her brother Jason struggles with the search for acceptance of something which can be more easily hidden.

A final hat tip to Hayes for her portrayal of Sister Chantelle, who had the audience folding over in their seats at her comedic performance of the character. She added just the right amount of sass and flair while keeping true to her scripted role and having the audience asking for more.

The FIERCE Musical Theater group captures audiences through the memorable plot of “bare: a pop opera” and reminds us of the difficulties youth face in searching — and being accepted — for their identities, no matter the circumstance.

“bare: a pop opera” was produced with the support of the Teddrick Fellowship Research Grant and the SIU Department of Theater.

Brian Munoz, Editor in Chief, can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter at @BrianMMunoz

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